Tuesday, September 06, 2016

The Book of the Month - A Little Life

I started reading this book with high expectations – maybe too high to be met. I had read many good reviews and I was told by some close friends that it was indeed a good book. Well, don’t take me wrong, it is. It is good in the same way a glass of moderately cheap wine can be enjoyed on a warm summer night when all you want to do is chill out and look at the stars. And maybe have some deep thoughts. Not too deep though. 

A Little Life is rich of drama and misery. It touches upon many topics our society is having to deal with: homosexuality, child abuse, religion, money, etc. All packed in one book. Too many topics to be taken seriously. Too little nuance to be taken deeply. Jude, the main character, is the dramatic version of Mr Bean. Anything that could go wrong with his life, it actually does! Except for success and money. After all, aren’t we in NYC?! The book starts well, with the right premises and great anticipation of what could happen next. However, there is a point in every book where we actually make our mind up. It’s either a “maker or breaker”. To me the breaking point coincided with the moment when Willem and Jude (stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens) go from being best friends to being lovers. Soul mates, in fact. Nothing wrong with that but a bit too cheesy for my own liking. I am not even sure someone who endures such a level of brutality and abuse, like Jude has, could have a relationship at all. In fact, I am not even sure he could survive, let alone be so successful and “sane”. 

There is too much going on in this book. By the end, you have the feeling that you are actually watching one of those exciting Fox TV drama series. Very entertaining but not very challenging. You don’t have to think because they do all the thinking for you. Being an Italian, I usually end up making a food analogy. Well, this book is not a McDonald’s, not at all. It’s more like a Cactus meal (for those who live in Canada – Strada, if you live in the UK) – i.e. the more sophisticated version of fast food. A Little Life still makes a good read. But it doesn’t stay with you for long. Two weeks on and it is forgotten. Like your last steak with fries - no matter if it was a Sirloin….

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The No-Fly Zone of Helicopter Parents

I grew up in Italy, the eldest daughter of two full-time working young outgoing energetic parents. My parents were always very present in my life (sometimes too much). And so were my grandparents. Like many Italian children whose parents were working, I used to be looked after by my grandma and grandpa. In many ways, you could probably say that I had two sets of parents. And yet, I was able to walk to school by myself, to go to the beach with other people, to roam around in freedom until 11pm on hot summer Italian nights, playing in very dark places with my young friends. No phones, no means of being tracked down other than my dad shouting from the window: “Vanessa, time to come home!” when the clock had struck 11pm. I then used to beg for some extra time which was usually granted to me. I was only 10 or maybe younger. It wasn't in a green place. It was in a city (though on the coast), full of houses and apartment blocks and some sporadic poorly kept parks. Bad people used to be around then as they are now: drug abusers, drunkards, paedophiles. You name it. But as no one talked about them, even less the media, we weren't fully aware of the danger and parents didn’t seem to be too worried about it either, backed up by well spread ignorance. I took on my first proper competitive sport (volleyball) when I was 11. Mums and dads used to come along on Sundays to watch the games but they were never allowed to stick around for the weekly training sessions!! At the age of 14, my parents bought my first moped for me. Most of my friends had one too. At that point, I was free to go literally wherever I wanted. Though I was a very responsible young lady who hardly ever abused of her parents trust, I occasionally got myself in trouble. But they never found out. 

I am a mum of two now. I have directly experienced the Italian style, the British style as well as the Canadian one. I can honestly say that the they don’t differ much other than the Canadian being more oriented towards many outdoor sports, for instance, and the Italian/British being oriented towards a few organized competitive sports as well as the arts (and good food). But times have changed, and so has parenting. The surge of ready available technology as well as a growing awareness and a higher level of education of the parents have resulted in a shift of the way we think we should bring up our children. Boredom, which many psychologists swear is the number one stimulus for creativity is now perceived as enemy N.1. Our children cannot bear being bored. We cannot bear them being bored – as that has an immediate impact on the quality of our (parents) lives. So, we end up organizing their day from morning to evening, from January to December, packing it up with activities, sports, classes, camps, play dates, trips....anything under the sun. Even schools seem to have followed the trend. The tedious tasks of sitting down in an orderly manner and writing endless numbers of letters and equations have now been replaced by a "fun learning” approach which usually implies that no child has to keep his/her attention span going for more than ten minutes on one task. After that, it’s time to move on! We have created a vicious circle, whereby children  are actually incapable of entertaining themselves with any activities other than those fully organized for them (by the parents). When they don’t (and inevitably find solace in diabolic electronic devices) we feel compelled to fit in one more thing to do in their (and our) already extremely busy schedule. And the nightmare goes on. Something that should make us happy is in fact becoming a source of stress for an increasing number of modern parents and children. And if you try to rebel against this mentality, you feel somehow as if you are letting your kids down.

It’s no one's fault other than our own. We have passed our fear of not being constantly stimulated, of not looking always busy onto our children. But quantity doesn't make up for quality. And being busy doesn't mean being productive, let alone happy. Are we not just creating a bunch of spoiled, scarcely independent individuals who are increasingly unable to listen to the so
und of their own thoughts? The best ideas come when we pause and think, not when we move and do. 

Why are we doing it then? Psychologists believe that modern parents are anxious about the future success of their kids and think that clearing every path for them will help them to achieve their ambitious goals. Some want to continue the kinds of bond they had when their children were younger by feeding the illusion that as adults, they aren't  actually getting old. Some others expect their children to supply the happiness missing from their marriages or their own social life. In all cases, the truth is that we are putting our own emotional needs ahead of the developmental needs of our children. Too much love can be as detrimental as too little. 

We need to learn to stand back and let them be. Let them be bored, even. If we want to be helicopters, first we need to teach our children how to fly. And then, only if they crash...we parachute ourselves in. Making sure that, once again, we don't land on their heads. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Smiling Mind

Thanks to modern studies, we are all more or less aware that body language plays a big part in our lives and our ability to communicate with other human beings. How much focus we put on refining our body language and understanding the one of others somehow varies from case to case, individual to individual and even job to job. I am not an expert on social behaviour but I am a keen fan of body language techniques and how we can use them to our advantage. I have been training my sixth sense since early age and I have always been more of a “feelings” person than a “facts” person.

How many times have you been in a situation, at work or in a social context, whereby you meet a person for the first time and it’s an instant dislike? You can just feel it in your guts. Many would argue that we shouldn’t just stop at our first impression. It seems somehow superficial to limit our judgment to just one look or a short conversation. I have a different opinion. Beyond our cultural differences, which can play a big role in clouding our judgment, if we “feel” we don’t like a person at first sight, chances are we are right. It’s not about being superficial, it’s about our brain unconsciously being able to decode the other person’s body language, read the little signals his/her body sends out, and interpret them. It doesn’t mean that this particular person is bad for us. It simply means that probably, we are not a good fit.

This said, there are things we can do to improve the situation and turn something potentially conflictual or unpleasant into something better by using our body language as a tool. A couple of years ago, I sat in a training session about conflict resolution in a work place with Lorna McLaren. One of the things she told us was that we should use kindness as our best revenge – and this is especially true for women.  If someone does something that hurts us in some way, let's respond with kindness. Let's try to transform our self-pity or anger into self-nurture and kindness toward ourselves and others. I know what you are thinking right now: it’s easier said than done. Being a very impulsive person, if I am upset, I find it so very difficult to stand back and be gracious when all I would like to do is shout my head off - though my anger usually fades away rather quickly. But that doesn’t mean I cannot try.
Be proactive. Try a simple experiment. Next time you walk in to a lift with other people, don’t turn your face to the door or stare at the empty space. Acknowledge their presence, face them and SMILE.  And then look at their reaction. Immediately, their tense faces will relax and respond back to you. With kindness! The spell is broken.

Be positive. Think positive. Act positive. A smile can open many doors. It’s cheap and easy to produce. But make sure it’s a real smile – i.e. it comes from within. Because if you fake one, people will be able to tell and you may end up triggering the opposite effect. I have been doing it for a while. Every day, I walk in to the lift of the banking building where I work, full of very busy, fast moving people, and look at those around me and smile. Sometimes, I even say hello. Occasionally, I get a cold reception but most of the times, it works. It works with strangers, friends, colleagues and clients. Think about it: would you be more likely to return to a shop where the clerk is nice and graceful or one where the clerk is formal and cold?

The best way to start the day is with a positive attitude. Some days, we may need someone to smile at us first in order to be able to refill our "positivity bottle". But if you smile, people will always smile back at you. There are things we can’t control and things we can. Let's focus on the ones we can. And keep smiling.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Life wihout a job

It's been four months since I lost my job. Understandably, I went through an emotional roller coaster: first I felt really strong and detached; then when the reality of the situation sank in, I felt almost desperate as if the world had crumbled around me; then I felt angry; anger turned into sadness and sadness into resignation. A week later - yes, (not) so long it took me to come through the other end of the tunnel, I started feeling well again. My confidence and optimism were back in full swing. Now, I feel good. I really do. 

Over the last four months I was able to go for a bunch of interviews, mainly thanks to my excellent recruiter and to my wide network of people. Most interviews have had either a positive or successful outcome. Months of networking and a relentless search for suitable jobs all over the planet have finally paid off. As a result, on Monday I will start a new job, a new exciting adventure. 

So indeed, I have finally come out of the tunnel. And now, standing under the warm sun on the eve of a new era, I can see the bright sides of having been unemployed for a while. Firstly, I got to wake up every morning without feeling the pressure of the ticking clock. I was able to dedicate time to myself. I went for long morning walks with friends. I got to enjoy more time at home. I got to spend quality time with my children. I have been able to dedicate time to my cooking, skiing, writing and my personal hobbies. 

Losing my job has made me realise what I'd always known: we work for living, we are not meant to live for working. Hence, work is only a part of the big jigsaw that is our life. A big part, yet still only a part. Of course, I will be working and pursuing my career once again. A new career, in a different sector, with new people – a chance to do something different and not for the first time. But this is not the point. The point is that I feel fulfilled regardless. " I AM", I am even without a job title that nowadays seems to go before us, like a badge on a sherif's jacket. I don't really need a badge, though – don’t get me wrong - it's nice to have one, of course. I AM. With or without a job. With or without a career. Acknowledging this means being stronger and better prepared for future challenges. 

So this is my message to all the people out there who right now, are unemployed and are struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel – friends, acquaintances, strangers. Don’t give up. This is not the end. It’s the beginning of something new, perhaps even better. Certainly different. It’s an opportunity to steer your life to a different direction. Grab the steering wheel and enjoy the journey.

Good luck.

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Book of the Month: A House in the Sky

This book is about how a young girl’s dream of travelling the world to escape the bleakness of her home life became her worst nightmare. A true story of how a strive for freedom became a sentence to captivity.

Amanda Lindhout is a young woman from Calgary who works in trendy bars and restaurants during the Canadian winters to pay for her long trips  around the globe. She travels on tight budgets and prefers interesting destinations to the touristic ones. Places where only young, tenacious and resourceful people decide to adventure to. Her long-chased dream of being paid (even if not much) to do what she likes best - i.e. travelling, takes her to war-devastated zones such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and, eventually, Somalia. Within 2 days of being in Mogadishu (as she defines it: "one of the most dangerous places on earth"), she and freelance journalist and her former lover, Nigel Brennan, are kidnapped by a group of Muslim fighters and held in captivity for ransom. Their abduction will last for fifteen months during which Amanda will be brutally abused, both mentally and physically. Their captivity will end only after a $1,5 milion is paid out by Nigel and Amanda’s families to their kidnappers. Yet, in her honest recounting of her chronicles, Amanda never lets hate get hold of her heart and mind. Her endurance, hope and compassion are stronger than any terrible adversity. This beautifully recounted story is as unbelievable as it is brutally real.